Do you dream of Europe, but it’s just too expensive? Pass up Paris and Rome and head to the best travel deal…Eastern Europe. The capitals of Eastern Europe have much to offer at a great price. This list will tell you all about them and how wonderful they really are.
I love Paris. I love London. I even love Rome, but why is it that when we start thinking of buying a ticket to Europe we don’t consider some of the lesser-known capital cities? Recently Jim and I have made it a point to really explore Eastern Europe more.
We’ve found these cities to be loaded with beautiful architecture, delicious foods, and plenty to do. But do you know what the best part is? They are all a fraction of the cost of visiting Paris and London. Your money goes so much further; it’s such a good feeling to know that you can still travel to places relatively unknown and not have to break the bank to do it. Here are our top ten favorite Eastern European capital cities.
The Best of Eastern European Capitals
As much as I love visiting the countryside, villages, and smaller cities everywhere I go, traveling to capital cities are such a good way to be introduced to the country. The capital is where you will find at least one major historical museum, an art museum, great restaurants, government buildings, and usually a fantastic pubic transportation system so you can easily get around. It’s also the easiest place to visit in each country since it’s always serviced with an international airports.
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I love to go to capital cities on the weekend or for day trips, but if I’m building a country-wide itinerary for two weeks or longer, I tend to get out of the city right away, then come back and do these things at the end after I’ve seen the rest. That way when I go to the museum and the artist is from X town, I’ve been there and can relate to it much better. I do know a lot of travelers that concentrate on just the capital and big cities of a country, though, because there is always so much to do.
The Best Eastern European Cities to Visit Before the Rest of the World
Without further ado, here is my list of ten European capital cities that you should put on your travel itinerary. These are all ones that we’ve fallen in love with and think you will too. We’ve listed a must-see history and art museum, plus our recommendations for a restaurant in each capial city. We hope it will get you started traveling to one of the best parts of Europe!
Prague is one of the prettiest cities on the planet, and it has become very popular to visit in the last ten years. We've been many, many times since we only lived two hours from the city. We'd go in just for a good meal sometimes, because Czech food is amazing.
There's something super special about the Charles Bridge and the old city of Prague and its medieval spires. There are so many beautiful buildings, great museums, and did I mention fantastic restaurants? You just can't go wrong.
Prague is not the only gem of the Czech Republic. It's a fantastic country to visit with lots to do, great festivals, and the best beer in the world.
Budapest... what a city! This is one of those places that I return to over and over again. I've been in winter and summer, and it's great all the time!
One of the many things that makes it such a draw is the beautiful Danube River which separates the city into two sides, Buda and Pest. The river bank is where you can see iconic sights like the Parliament Building or get a great view of the castle.
With its long and varied history, there is plenty to see and do in Budapest. Some of our favorites are taking a cooking lesson, visiting the central market, stopping by a ruin bar, and of course taking some time to relax in the many baths.
Tallinn is one of the cities that really has been growing in popularity in the last few years. It is a small city, very walkable, and there is plenty to do. We enjoyed many of the museums, some tucked right into the wall towers, as well as the amazing food that they have to offer. Tallinn, more than most, celebrates their link to the Middle Ages with costumes, pubs, and people dressed up wandering the streets.
We had so much fun in this small city. We were there in winter, and it didn’t slow us down one bit. I’m sure it’s even more beautiful during the warmer months. We loved seeing all the sights of Tallinn, but we also did one other very cool thing that I’ve never heard of before, and that was finding out all about the history of marzipan, then making it and painting it
Best History Site: Fat Margaret Maritime Museum Great Art Museum: Kumu Art Museum Favorite Restaurant: Rataskaevu 16
From Tallinn we were fortunate enough to visit another amazing city, Helsinki. We discovered that Helsinki is cold. Very cold. We visited in winter, but sometimes I feel that you should go to a place when it’s the hardest. Needless to say, we had a little bit of time getting used to the bitter cold, but of course the locals are used to winter, and we saw folks swimming in the heated, seaside pools while we were bundled from head to toe. Along with the list of mandatory Helsinki tourist sites, we also warmed up in cafe after cafe. All of them were chic and cozy.
Best History Site: National Museum of Finland Great Art Museum: Ateneum Art Museum Favorite Restaurant: Olo Ravintola
Stunning golden domes highlight the city scape of Kiev. We were ecstatic to visit the capital of Ukraine. We'd heard so much about it. This is a city that welcomes foreigners and has a vibrant cafe and restaurant scene. It was fun to see the many gorgeous sites and well as find some great places to eat and hang out for awhile.
We toured quite a bit while we were in Kiev, because from world heritage sites to amazing museums, we just couldn't stop. There was so much to see. Of course one of our best tours was the cooking lesson where we made varenyky (dumplings) and the national dish of borscht.
Best History Site: Ukrainian Treasures Museum Great Art Museum: National Art Museum of Ukraine Favorite Restaurant: Ostannya Barykada
We visited this beautiful capital city on Sunday, which is always a good day to see what locals do. We walked around a flea market and joined the throngs of folks visiting the castle for lunch and shopping. With the Sava River running right through town, there are cafes, bakeries, and restaurants galore. We walked, gawked, and ate all day. Not only is Ljubljana a great destination, it’s also a fantastic jumping off point to a bunch of other amazing natural sights in Slovenia.
We’ve been to Sofia twice; that’s how much we love it. Of all the cities we’ve visited, this one has many Ottoman and Byzantine remnants and churches that are so intriguing to visit. That with the amazing Bulgarian food, you can’t go wrong. We’ve spent lots of time in Bulgaria, and again that’s because we’ve enjoyed the interactions with the local people as well as all of the amazing food they serve. We took a week long road trip through the country, and just like we imagined, Sofia wasn’t anything like the rest of the country.
Another winter foray into the east, this time we visited some teachers on an exchange and went to Kaunas and Trakai Castle in Lithuania gets extremely cold. We spent only a day in Vilnius but the stark and dreary weather just accentuated all the great things to do, since a lot of them revolve around the Soviet era. Great museums and beautiful architecture greet you on every street. The part we enjoyed the most was getting to know our hosts, drinking coffee, sharing the national snack and eating a special Lithuanian Apple Cake.
Best History Site: Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, National Museum Great Art Museum: National Art Gallery Favorite Restaurant: Berneliu Uzeiga
We spent a weekend in Riga, at the end of fall so it was getting cool. Luckily, we were led around by a small group of locals, showing us things we might have discovered on our own but didn’t have to. We weren’t on a walking tour, but it’s one reason to take those free walking tours when you get to a city, you will always learn and see something you would have missed. Riga is also a medieval city, recognized by UNESCO, and it is gorgeous. We can’t wait to go back.
Best History Site: KGB Building File No. 1914/2014 Great Art Museum: Latvian National Museum of Art Favorite Restaurant: Muusu
Bucharest is fun! With a lively downtown area, people were lounging, eating, drinking, and having a merry time all day and all night long. The beautiful downtown area had a lot to do, eat, and drink. While we were there, people were outside drinking coffee, chatting, and smiling. There was lots of smiling.
Skopje is really trying to renovate and update. As we walked around the downtown areas, full of statues, flower beds, flowers, cafes, museums, and old bazaars we noticed such an eclectic mix of old and new. It’s a city in flux, and it’s working hard to attract tourists. We loved the completely different vibe it gave off as opposed to all of the other capitals we visited. We also loved the amazing food.
Best History Site: Archaeological Museum of Macedonia Great Art Museum: Contemporary Art Museum of Macedonia Favorite Restaurant: Skopski Merak
Minsk was a surprise. We expected it to feel Russian-like as they still maintain very good relations with its patron to the north. However, we didn't know how much it would feel Russian. The huge, wide streets had few cars. The buildings were gigantic, sprawling block complexes. It was amazing. It was one of the few places I've been that I really feel like I'm really traveling and experiencing something new.
Belgrade isn’t quite as bright and shiny as some of the other Eastern European capitals, but as you walk along the main pedestrian street you are captivated by the sunken book shops, the hipster cafes, and it’s not hard to imagine how bleak life was only a couple of decades ago. Luckily while we were there in mid-summer the sun was shining, we walked all over, loved seeing all the major sights, eating in the cool cafes, and the highlight of our trip was the Tesla Museum. Who would have thought?
Best History Site : Museum of Yugoslav History Must-do Art Museum: Galerija STAB Favorite Restaurant: Zavicaj Restaurant
Bratislava is located in a great triangle of cities to include Budapest and Vienna. The downtown area is colorful, vibrant, and full of things to do. It's well worth a day trip. It doesn't take long to see the sights of this small capital city, but just because it's small doesn't mean it doesn't have plenty to share.
We loved the busy downtown, and we've even visited in winter when the Christmas market is in full swing. It was lovely.
Best History Site: Bratislava City Museum Great Art Museum: Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum Favorite Restaurant: Bratislavsky Mestiansky pivovar
Yerevan, on the far reaches of Eastern Europe, is a huge city in Armenia. We spent a few days here exploring the old town area, and really loving the food. Some things to see are the Cascade, Republic Square, and the Armenian Genocide Memorial.
Best History Site: History Museum of Armenia Great Art Museum: National Gallery of Armenia Favorite Restaurant: Lavash Restaurant
When we visited Tbilisi, we had a feeling we'd stepped back in time. We loved having a bath at the old hamam and visiting the mosques, bridges, and cafes in the city. There definitely was plenty to do to keep us happy and busy.
While there we rented a car and did some exploring outside of the city as well. One of our favorite roads to drive was the Military Road which connects Tbilisi to Russia, and along the way we found a very cool souvenir, and even took a dumpling cooking lesson.
If you want to start traveling again, why not head to some of these lesser visited spots in Eastern Europe? The capital cities are modern, have tons of things to do, great history museums, fantastic art, and amazing restaurants with great food. The best thing is they are usually cheaper to travel to than some of the western European cities. So what are you waiting for?
Have you been to any of these cities? What was your favorite spot?